Prevent in the arts: a threat to creative freedom and expression

Prevent in the arts: a threat to creative freedom and expression

Roaa Ali

Is it conceivable that a creative work could be compromised, modified or even censored in today’s Britain? The Prevent strategy seems to be doing just that through direct and indirect means.

As a creative and expressive social site, the arts is often charged with representing and reflecting the temporal preoccupations, needs and aspirations of a nation and its communities. The performance of a cultural text – be it a play, a poem, or an artifact – is a moment of negotiation between the creators and their social surroundings, which simultaneously offers the audience a space for meditation and mediation as they reflect on the issues of their times. It is a sign of a healthy society when artists and audiences alike share an unrestricted intellectual arena where they can think creatively of solutions to contemporary conflicts or simply enjoy a contemplative repose. Attempts to restrict the fluidity of the creative process or govern its public exchange negatively impacts on artist and audience members and can permanently modify the cultural product and its social surrounding.

In the UK, the arts remains largely independent from state intervention since the Theatres Act of 1968, which eliminated censorship and ensured that artists and creators exercise freedom of expression. However, in the age of Prevent, this is not the case when the creative subject is Muslim representation. In an article outlining the limitation of access on Muslim artists and on Muslim representations in the UK creative sector, I have argued that current British Muslim representations are discursive and subject to varying measures of censorship as a direct result of Prevent. Although it is difficult to quantify the exact impact of Prevent on theatre, this article engages with examples of creative works where Prevent has directly or indirectly impeded the cultural production of a creative text. Prevent has not only alarmingly re-introduced censorship in the arts when it comes to creating and producing cultural representations of Islam, but it has also directly regulated the right and agency of who can author and reproduce certain minoritised representations.

Direct Censorship
Even though censorship in the arts is thought to have been completely abolished in the UK, a play titled Homegrown was unceremoniously cancelled just few days before its premiere in 2015. The play was being developed by playwright Omar El-Khairy and director Nadia Latif, who were approached by the National Youth Theatre (NYT). The task was to create a play that addresses radicalisation in schools following the Trojan Horse affair, a heavily reported but now debunked plot to ‘islamise’ a number of schools in Birmingham. El-Khairy and Latif were in the process of creating an immersive site-specific play that presented an unadulterated dramatisation of young people in school dealing with issues of racism, islamophobia and radicalisation, when an email informed them that the play had been abruptly cancelled. Among the initial public justifications that the NYT cited for the cancellation was a lack in artistic standards, a disputed reason that implicitly tarnished the reputation of the creative team and limited what was already a “provisional access to the creative sector” for the involved artists as I noted in a previous article. The other reason, which later transpired to be the main cause for the censorship, referenced safeguarding issues and an extraordinary claim that the work had an ‘extremist agenda’.

Charlotte Heath-Kelly argues that Prevent designates young Muslims as risky or at risk and that such ‘framing of Muslim communities as collectively “at risk” or vulnerable has the paradoxical effect of also securitising them concerning what they might produce; disciplinary governance thus merging with securitisation’ (2012, 12). According to the creative team, members of the police wanted to read the script and attend the show in plain clothes to address alleged safeguarding issues regarding the cast members, comprised of over 100 young adults. This unusual police interference during the development of a performance was a direct result of the proliferation of the Prevent strategy in many civil sites, including creative spaces. Homegrown has been published in defiance of those who suspected its content, but it was artistically censored. The play, which was meant to be performed and engaged with as a creative site for discussing and negotiating themes of radicatisation, islamophobia and young Muslim identity was curtailed; a rather shocking and lamentable consequence of Prevent.

Indirect impact – cultural production and process
While Homegrown was directly censored, other works engaging with Muslim representation faced various obstacles through their process of development and production. Playwrights Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead, from Lung theatre started developing a play in response to the Trojan Horse scandal, which tarnished Birmingham’s Muslim community and was projected out of proportion in media reporting. In their attempt to retell the story as it happened through the lived experience of the teachers, pupils, councilors and government officials involved, Monks and Woodhead conducted more than 200 interviews with 90 people, and turned those into a critically acclaimed documentary play with the same title, The Trojan Horse.

Prevent was at the heart of this play as a subject matter, and as a culture surrounding its development. The play’s creators faced many constraints in the process of researching and devising it, including intense nervousness from people, particularly young adults, who were “self-censoring” and wanted to remain anonymous out of fear directly induced by Prevent.

In my interview with Helen Monks, she expressed that although the creators had a lot of experience in creating verbatim theatre that convey people’s real voices, it was “the first time that it felt like a rebellious act of defiance to be putting voices on stage” even though these voices were not expressing anything particularly controversial or in any way illegal. Furthermore, although the play was developed in association with Leeds Playhouse, which was fully supportive, many theatre spaces did not want to engage or be affiliated with the project. Monks explains: “Other venues that we normally have really strong relationships with have said that this is not the project for them and distanced themselves from the project and I think this is the culture of Prevent – it is easier to not get involved in the discussion”.

It was only after the play had its full performance at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2018, winning a Fringe First Award and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award that theatre spaces were open to it. The urgent thought-provoking and artistically-engaging play, currently touring nationally through 2019 and 2020, might have been now silenced had it not been for the Fringe success. This is a sombre conclusion of the culture of Prevent in the art where there is a real threat that a creative work is censored in its development stage before it even sees the light.

Who has a voice, whose agency?
Censorship has been exercised in both of the previous examples as a consequence of Prevent, but the Muslim-authored Homegrown was the one that was labeled and more readily dismissed as “extremist”. Monks talked about the pushbacks that she and Woodhead faced while creating their play, but she was also very conscious of her subject position: “Just by putting those voices on stage, the reputation of the company and our name are then affiliated with those voices we are putting on stage and I have a lot of privilege as a white middle class woman to do that, but I think that if I was Muslim then there would be much greater consequence to that play being on than I faced”. Monk’s admirable honesty sheds light on the subject of agency and who has the right to create, speak up and represent.

The construction of Muslims as a ‘suspect community’ as a result of Prevent creates a culture of mistrust that securitises the voices of British Muslims, which means that artists from this community cannot tell their own stories. Materially, what this policing of artistic creation does is exclude Muslim artists from participating in the cultural sector, which leads to less representations being made by Muslims about Muslims for a Muslim and a general audience. This, in turns affects efforts to diversify the creative sector and limits who has the ability to speak and produce art.

Prevent creates a culture where freedom of expression is alarmingly compromised and sometimes curtailed when artists engage in Muslim representation, or creatively approach the topic of young Muslims in the UK. Lack of cultural and creative inclusion further contributes to the social isolation that some Muslims feel, and leads to a stagnant and essentialist representation of British Muslim identity harming both the British social and creative spheres. When assessing the impact of Prevent, it is important to consider the wider and equally worrying effects of the programme in the field of arts, and question whether a regression in how the state engages with the arts is acceptable or should be tolerated. Moreover, it is vital to reflect on the larger shadows that Prevent throws on freedom of expression in general and confront its threat to the autonomy of thought and the voice of artists and audiences as they encounter and mediate the multiple facets of contemporary British identity.


Roaa Ali  is a Research Associate at the centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester.  Her research explores the representation of ethnic minorities and the politics of cultural production, and the ways in which artists and activists attempt to decolonise both spaces. Her wider research explores issues of ethnic minorities’ self-expression and identity, such as the representation of Arab Americans in the United States post 9/11. She is currently working on two books, a monograph, Resistant Narratives Post 9/11: Dramatic and Digital Arab American Voices, and a co-edited volume titled Arab, Politics and Performance

Image: from the play, Trojan Horse, by LUNG Theatre (Copyright: Helen Monks, writer; Matt Woodhead, writer/director). The play is on tour at theatres during October and November 2019, and in January and February 2020.